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PROGRAM HELPS POOR BE LAID TO REST

One thing links a 3-day-old child, an unidentified transient and a 93-year-old woman.

They were among the 144 people Salt Lake County has made funeral arrangements for so far this year as part of its Indigent Burial Program. Last year the program arranged and paid for 190 burials at a cost of $28,662.How the program got started is not completely clear, according to Lynda Gasparac, who runs it. But for at least 25 years the county has taken responsibility if families couldn't be located or had no resources to pay funeral costs. The program also moved around a bit from one division to another before ending up in the Salt Lake County attorney's office Civil Division.

Over the years, both cost and the number of people who must use the program have increased. As a result, "burial program" is now a misnomer. Most of the time the county pays for cremation, although homicide victims who have no one else to make funeral arrangements are still buried.

"We're interested in not having the bodies of victims disposed of," said Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom. "We do what we can to get all the evidence before they are buried."

When the program started and for many years after, the county operated its own "potter's field" in the Taylorsville Cemetery, purchasing the grave, the wooden vault and the plot of land. It could afford to do that, Gasparac said, because her office would file for the $255 Social Security death benefit.

A decade ago, the number of people requiring an indigent burial was rising at the same time the Social Security Administration changed its policy, so the death benefit was only available to surviving spouses.

Many of the people the county was burying didn't have spouses: they were either infants from poor families who died unexpectedly, very elderly people who died in nursing homes without relatives or spouses, and transients.

Salt Lake County couldn't collect the death benefit to defray costs and had to find a less expensive way to handle the cases. Now, people are cremated (at a cost of $114). If families object to cremation, that's fine, but the county will only provide that amount toward the cost of burying someone. Because the county still has some plots in the Taylorsville Cemetery, it can occasionally donate a grave site to a family in need.

It costs $682.50 each time the county buries a homicide victim. So far, it has buried five this year. Since 1990, 37 homicide victims have been buried by the county.

The county's log sheet shows that in the past few years, more than half of the people deemed indigent and buried by the program have been adults ages 19-64. Dozens of senior citizens are buried through it. Each year the county takes care of the costs for 20 to 30 children, as well.

Most of those deemed indigent have families. But about 25 bodies have been unclaimed each year this decade.